NCCA Road Nationals Report

In all honesty, I have been preparing for today (and tomorrow) since this time last year.  All the training and daydreaming….focused on this race.  I can only imagine how well school might go for me if I wasn’t a cyclist!

Through multiple Google-chats with Devin and others to plan my strategery, I settled on the simplest of all plans: be defensive yet aggressive, and make the selections.  The course had changed this year so that the start would be more mellow than a mile-long 15% grade one mile into the race like last year.  I was worried that a break would get away in the opening miles and ruin my chances, but I would have to take that gamble and hope that the brutality of the course would do the selecting.  In the pre-ride yesterday I got some good practice for handling the descents at speed, since some of them were actually quite technical and had hay-bales on the outside of the turns.  My legs felt great, the weather would be nice, and I knew the course…everything was coming together.

After a restless night’s sleep (sorry, Tom…) and a nice breakfast, we got out to the race with an hour to prepare.  The forecast had said sustained winds in the low 20’s with gusts in the 40’s.  I chose to race my deep dish wheels nonetheless–I’m used to fighting them in the wind, and I really wanted the aero advantage.

My warmup was 30 seconds on the trainer before they called the D1 men to staging…where we waited 20 minutes for them to start the callups.  I knew a warmup would be a moot point anyway.  I was shivering from nerves and the chilly upper-50 degrees morning, and the fact that I was very well hydrated and needed to pee again.  I managed to get a starting position on the end of row 2.  Jason was on the other end of row 3, and Todd had the front-row callup for conference champion.

The gun fired and it was a melee for position…people all over the place.  And then we found out it was a neutral rollout.  Something like that would have been good to know earlier.  So we impatiently waited behind the car for a bit over half a mile.  The ‘neutral’ status didn’t stop people from sprinting up the sides of the pack to get the front, though.

Once the lead car finally drove off, the size of the pack became really impressive.  We had a rolling enclosure, meaning that there were cops ahead of us pushing all traffic off the road so that we could use the entire roadway.  Even with 130 starters, we couldn’t fill up 5 lanes of traffic.  The pack became a whirlpool of constant motion…people in the middle went backwards, and people on the sides went forwards.

As expected, there were multiple attempts at early breaks.  I watched.  I only had so many matches to burn, and I knew it would hit the fan less than 10 miles down the road, where the first climb is nearly a mile long.  A huge crash happened at mile 2 when the road narrowed suddenly and riders were too afraid to go into the dirt….  I kept circling back up to the lead 30 riders or so for the next few miles as we went through the rolling foothills of the mountains.  I was racing at 5000 feet above where I live and had to be fresh for that climb–I was convinced that the selection would happen there.

With the climb coming within view, I once more worked back up to the top 30 riders.  The climb began, and I just followed.  About half way up, the split finally happened and I was on the wrong end of it by a few riders.  I picked up my pace, alternating in and out of the saddle, and joined up with the lead group of about 15 as we went over the top.  The descent was pretty fast with a chicane at the bottom…which we took at 40+.  There were some more rolling hills and another shallow climb, and our group was caught by a few and we dropped a few.  There was another descent down the ridge of the dam with another, sharper chicane at the bottom.  I was pretty freaked out because the leaders were riding their brakes the whole way down.  I slowed hard before the turn so that I could stay off the brakes through the turns, but still had to brake hard mid-turn just so I wouldn’t run into the back of the others.

By the time we got down to the reservoir, there were 20 riders remaining.  I was ecstatic!  Everything was going to plan–I had made the selection and still felt good.  Jason was the only MSU rider in the group, and Colorado State and Ft. Lewis each had about 5.  A chase group of 20 caught us a few miles later at the base of the next climb because nobody was willing to work–this group contained Todd of MSU.  This would be the final ‘selection’ of about 40 racers as we started the loops at the end of the course.  Each loop is 10 miles long with some rolling hills.  It is shaped like a long rectangle, with a really strong tailwind on one long side and headwind on the other.  The winning break of last year’s race was formed on the loops.  I was still playing defensively, but would be aggressive if I needed to.  Luckily, I’ve had some success racing by myself in non-collegiate races…you learn to read the teams and play them against each other.  I would depend on this ability today.

For the first time around the loop, there were some attacks launched and small breaks formed, but nothing stayed away.  I was feeling a bit tired and the wind wasn’t helping any….  Shortly after starting lap 2, a break of a dozen riders got away and I wasn’t in it.  Jason was there, so I couldn’t count on MSU to bring it back–it seemed like every team had a rider or two in it.  I doubted my ability to get across solo, so I worked fairly hard at the front to bring them back.  There were a few others working, and I was able to leap-frog across a few attacks and the gap finally closed towards the end of the loop.  Steve was my feed-man, and both of my feeds went smoothly.

Almost immediately after turning into the tailwind to start lap 3, a large group of riders jumped away.  MSU wasn’t there, so I cleverly waited for them to make a move.  Todd jumped and I followed, and together we made it up to the group.  We pulled away fairly quickly with a good rotation, and the tailwind certainly helped.  If you’ve never done a paceline at 46 mph, I highly recommend it….  I was geared out with my 53×12, but not spun out.  It was funny seeing some of those guys trying to spin–I wanted to yell “get a fixie!” because they couldnt’ sustain a high cadence for more than a few seconds.  For those questioning the fixie ‘fad’, all I have to say is that it’s a great training tool with real benefits if you use it right!

Some more riders bridged up to us, and our break became 20 strong (or weak, if you want to look at it that way).  I did more work than I should have to ensure the success of the group, as only half of us were working.  One of the Ft. Lewis riders was losing his mind over the riders not pulling through, which I found amusing.  One time I took a while to pull through because he surged off the front and he yelled at me, “What is this, your first f***ing rodeo? Pull through!”  Ha.  Fort-freakin-Lewis is yelling at a lone Aggie to pull through in the mountains when he can’t do so without surging.  Come on dude, ride like you deserve to wear a jersey that says ’10+ National Championships’.

As we finished the loops and headed back into the mountains, I braced myself for the pain to come.  The first climb was somewhat shallow but very long, and I struggled to maintain contact.  With a tailwind on the descent, our group raced downhill at 60 mph (this is the same descent I hit 61 on last year).  They reached for the brakes for the turn at the bottom…I railed it. Full-width road with a sweeping turn…don’t be a wussy!

Over the next climb there were a few attacks thrown, but I kept a good pace and brought them back by the top.  As we passed the reservoir again, the teams with multiple riders pulled us along to keep the pace up (this is where I saw cameras for the first time the whole race).  The wind was really crazy here, as the mountains were creating a sort of vortex down in the valley and the winds were changing direction at random.  We made the left turn for the final climb of the race–it is the steepest of the whole race for 200m or so, then ‘flattens out’ to a meager 10% or so for half a mile.  As we crossed the levee headed for the climb, we were fully exposed to the 40mph gusts of wind, which just about blew us all over.

Just as I expected, the break blew wide open on the climb as we saw who had the most left in the tank.  There was now a lead group of 7 or so, another group of 4, me, a group of 3, and then whoever was left.  I made the sharp U-turn half way down the descent, which then becomes a sweeping left-hand U-turn. I was familiar with the course, so I layed the bike over at 45 mph in the crazy winds around the blind turn in an effort to catch that group of 4 just ahead.  I couldn’t quite get there, and they finished 20 seconds ahead of me.  I crossed the line alone for 13th at just under the 3-hour mark, making for an average speed of 24mph.

I immediately unclipped and braced myself on my handlebars, trying to catch my breath.  Any deep breaths caused me to start coughing and wheezing….  20 minutes later my heart rate had only fallen to 120–yeah, I was exhausted!  Within an hour after the race ended, I had already downed 80 oz. of fluids.  Todd finished a minute or so after I did, and Jason won the ‘field’ sprint for 20th.  Greg would finish 72nd, and Hattaway stuck with it and finished the race.

As much as I wanted a top-10 finish, I don’t have any regrets.  I raced my hardest today, and don’t really see anything that I could have done differently that would have changed the outcome for the better.

Crit tomorrow…I’d encourage you to watch live!  We race at 1pm central time.  I’ll be wearing my go-fast socks.

Chad Haga